When you're regularly offered gigs illustrating for iconic brands like Vans, it's fair to say you've made it as a commercial artist. But Ben Jensen—who's gone by Way Bad since 2013—doesn't care about that. "Basically, if the end product isn't something I'd be stoked to buy, I won't do it," he says. "If you're a corporation trying to buy your way [into skateboarding], I don't feel comfortable helping you."
His illustrations look like the focused sketches of someone bored in class; anti-establishment, cynical, and anthemic, they're the kind of drawings that make you look (and think) twice. It wasn't long before a simple Tumblr side project quickly evolved into a brand of its own. As for his nom de plume? "When Tumblr asked me for a username," the artist recalls, "'Way Bad' is what popped out of my beat-up, coffee-soaked, no-work-good brain."
While he is admittedly enjoying his burgeoning fame, the artist remains careful about maintaining his independence. "I don't rely on art to feed my family," he says. He references his job as a mason: "That gives me the freedom to take the jobs I want that don't pay very well," he says. Currently, his work ranges from teenage skate crew patches to graphics for indie Australian board company Fisherman Skateboards.
While it seems like skateboarding, cheap beer, and pizza are at the forefront of Way Bad's concerns, so, too, are civil rights. He speaks out against racism, homophobia, and misogyny through his work. "It's not just the Klan, woman beaters, and gay bashers," says Jensen. "There's a lot of subtler, institutional stuff that flies under most privileged people's radars." His "Skaters Against Homophobia" T-shirt is one of the many designs he employs to highlight just that.
Way Bad's work has a distinctly good, playful quality to it that separates it from the average pen-and-paper drawing. Last year, he created cards for Portland's Sizzle Pie pizza shop featuring a pizza wheel-wielding Grim Reaper, and a Valentine's Day card that read "Till Death Do Us Party." The artist is currently working with Sizzle Pie again, this time on delivery boxes to coincide with the shop's expansion to Brooklyn and Seattle, and with a small brand called Pindejo designing enamel pins.
Influential illustrators like Neck Face, Grotesk, and Jay Howell (the illustrator behind Bob's Burgers) made formidable legacies with sensibilities similar to Way Bad's—and while he insists he's content with his current standing in the art world, we can't help but feel he's not far behind them.
Keep up with Way Bad on waybad.tumblr.com, and look out for his projects with Sizzle Pie and Pindejo later this spring.